Tron (1982)

I always liked the video game of Tron more than the movie, even though I wasn’t very good at it. I could never finish the third level. Do you remember the game? The cabinet was all black light and faux neon, and you had to clear four sub-games on each level: the tanks, the light cycles, the grid spiders, and the breakout. It got exponentially more difficult with each clear of the four and I don’t know I ever completed even one of the sub-games on level three, but it was incredibly fun and I didn’t mind spending all those quarters trying.

I also liked the toys a lot, and have been chuckling over this one little kid freaking out in the action figure aisle of our local Lionel Play World for almost forty years now. The light cycles used zip-cords and would be really perfect for our place now, with our hardwood floors. The package read “the futuristic light cycle,” and some small boy didn’t know that word and thought it said “fantastic.” So the child flipped out and started screaming “Mom! Mom! It’s the fantastic light cycle! The fantastic light cycle!” Mom said “That’s nice, dear,” and wasn’t about to spend seven or eight dollars on a piece of plastic, leaving the kid desolately crying and choking out between sobs “fantastic light cycle, faaaaaaantastic liiiiiiight cycle…” for what I remember as just short of forever.

I remember the game and that kid much better than I remember the movie. I know I saw it in theaters once as well as a few times on HBO, but the details were all gone before this morning.

Don’t try that on the Helicarrier, David Warner. Tony Stark’ll bust you.

Our son wasn’t completely blown away, but it certainly entertained him. He said that he loved the look of the film, which is what most people remember more than the story, which is really by-the-numbers. Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner are the stars, with smaller roles for Barnard Hughes, Peter Jurasik, and former Shazam! star Jackson Bostwick as one of the henchmen. It was the music, which was written by Wendy Carlos, that stood out most to me this morning. During the solar-sailed ship sequence, I was thinking that having a soundtrack of this would not be a bad idea at all, which I never think, even when I’m watching something Bernard Herrmann scored.

It’s impossible for a kid born in the 21st century to see this movie’s animation with the same perspective we had then. It remains really interesting to watch – the front-seat view from the cycles during the race is quite exciting – but, much like the video for the Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” animation has progressed so far that we just don’t “see” the 3D that we did the first time around. Even though the spectacle has been blunted by time, it’s not a bad flick for what it is: the rebels escape and move from A to B to destroy the enemy complex, a perfectly engaging plot for kids. Wikipedia suggests that some critics from the day thought it was “incoherent,” which means they must have had a very long nap in the middle of the press screening.

Of course, the biggest element that’s been blunted by time is the idea that we need to fear an evil supercomputer like the Master Control Program taking control of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No, these days we’re more aware that human garbage can disrupt the hell out of our world using much smaller systems. I wish the Master Control Program would zap Zuckerberg into a video game and de-res him in a round of electronic jai-alai.

Shazam! 2.3 – Fool’s Gold

“I wonder who Captain Marvel will rescue in this story,” Daniel asked as we sat down. I’m really pleased by how much he enjoys watching old shows with me.

This one’s really unusual, and I liked it more than most. It’s Jackson Bostwick’s final episode, and his big scene is tunneling into a collapsed mine to rescue an old hobo – slash – prospector who goes by the name Seldom Seen Slim. He’s played by the veteran actor Dabbs Greer, who had a really long career going back to 1950, many of those early roles (312[!!] listed at IMDB) uncredited. You probably know him best as Old Paul in The Green Mile, but he was also Reverend Alden in Little House on the Prairie.

This is subtle, but the usual structure of a Shazam! episode sees Billy and Mentor meeting some characters at the point of a crisis and effecting a reconciliation in some way. This isn’t quite like that; it’s more like a Fugitive or Route 66 where the situation is going to be resolved regardless of our traveling heroes; Richard Kimble or Tod and Buzz (or Linc) just need to stay out of the way, keep their heads down and not get killed as the character drama comes to its conclusion and hope that it’s not too grim.

Obviously, something that is going out to kids on Saturday mornings isn’t going to end badly – certainly not in 1975 – but this doesn’t have the easy and pat moral reminders that a typical Shazam! has, like “don’t tell lies,” “trust the police,” and “don’t hang out with kids who steal cars for joyrides.” The closest thing here would be, what, “don’t be a little ass to old hobos in the desert?” No, the heroes are very much on the periphery of these characters as their story comes to a conclusion, and don’t impact anybody’s understanding or resolve the matter; the hobo and the kids do that on their own.

I wondered whether the writer had actually contributed to more adult dramas in the 1960s to come up with such a structure. It is credited to Olga Palsson Simms, who does not have a listing at IMDB. Google only pulls up this credit and a notation that a woman by that name died in California in 1997. I wonder who she was.

Shazam! 2.1 – On Winning

I’m more than just a little bit envious. I checked out seven episodes of 1977’s All-New Super Friends Hour for Daniel to watch. They’re terrible, of course, but those DVDs are as complete as can be, with all the interstitials, magic tricks, health tips, previews for the next week’s episode, and everything like that. Somebody hacked the end-of-show moral message from the master films of these episodes – many, if not all, are at least included as very low-quality bonus features – and the closing credits of this episode has an announcement about the episode of Isis that followed it. Except it’s an announcement about a totally different Isis episode than the one that originally aired as the season premiere… what a mess.

The episode is tame, safe, and dull. It’s about sibling rivalry, and all Captain Marvel does this week is fly the teens’ dad from the bottom of a ravine to join the others. Eric Shea plays one of the teens; nine years previously, he had been that kid who wandered through the first Shame episode of Batman yelling “Come back, Shame!” Daniel liked it at least. The teens ride dirt bikes.

Shazam! 1.15 – The Gang’s All Here

I’d be fibbing if I implied that the two-parter that ended the first season of Shazam! was some kind of undiscovered gem, or any less timid than the standard of the previous episodes, but it is the first one that feels like the show’s writers or producers had ever read a Captain Marvel funnybook. It does have an actual villain, a teen gang leader played by Jack McCulloch, and Billy does get tied up and gagged, keeping him from saying his magic word, which is an old, old trope from the comics. Nevertheless, our son was less engaged than usual, although he did declare this was “pretty cool.”

No, it’s really not very good, even by the show’s standards, and Carol Anne Seflinger has even less to do in part two than she did in the first half. The extras who make up the teen gangs include one fellow with a ’70s porn moustache who’s at least ten years older than the rest of the bad guy crew. The climactic fight takes place at an oil refinery, and the local police refuse to get involved because they can’t arrest anybody who “might” commit a crime. No, they don’t even send an officer to tell these punks to scram, so Mentor calls the highway patrol instead. I’m not sure they arrest anybody either, but at least they show up. Let’s hear it for CHiPs.

Shazam! 1.14 – The Past is Not Forever

This is an interestingly forward-thinking bit of kidvid. It’s the first of a two-parter; like the previous one in this series, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, instead seeming to divide the action and problems into two separate stories with the same character. Yet I am interested in how Filmation chose to end the season with a larger-than-normal two-part story with bigger issues.

This one isn’t about being trustworthy or respectful or not telling lies. It’s one baby step up closer to a proper antagonist, and a problem that isn’t going to be solved in twenty-two minutes, with lingering distrust and bad feelings among two gangs of teenagers. It starts out with a more ominous warning from the Elders than the usual fortune cookie gibberish, and Billy and Mentor soon find themselves dealing with a reformed young crook who is immediately suspected of a gas station robbery.

The cast is larger than usual, too, with six speaking parts. Among them is Carol Anne Seflinger, and two seasons later she’d be a regular in Sid and Marty Krofft’s Wonderbug, one of the shows that would end up sinking this one. Oops!

Daniel was very attentive and curious about this episode. The plot of framing people for crimes they didn’t commit was a little confusing for him, but he was really interested in this and wants to know what will happen next. We’ll find out in a couple of days.

Shazam! 1.13 – The Braggart

Well, shut my mouth! Last time we looked at a Shazam! episode, I teased that they weren’t going to have a stuntman wrestle a bear. No, they had one wrestle a lion the following week instead! And if that’s not enough, they had Jackson Bostwick wrangle a freaking big vulture.

You can sort of tell that Len Janson and Chuck Menville’s script started with the producers getting a day or two of filming at some zoo in California and needing to write a story around it, and so a teen claims to have walked through the rhino pit one day and his pals make him prove it. But never mind the story, look at the animals.

I’m reminded that when I was in college, I once overheard two guys arguing the merits of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, with one guy insisting that Marlon Perkins was television’s biggest badass, because every week “you had this seventy year-old guy beating up giraffes and shit.” It was the seventies; lots of people wrestled lions back then.

Shazam! 1.12 – The Delinquent

Recognize that kid on the right? It’s Jackie Earle Haley, who would play one of the Bad News Bears a couple of years later. Much, much later on, he’d make the rare transition from child star to grownup actor. He was Rorshach in the Watchmen movie, Freddie in a Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and he currently appears in the Preacher TV series. Well, maybe “grownup” isn’t quite the right word.

Daniel really liked this episode because, speaking of bears, a big brown bear shows up in this episode and Captain Marvel needs to chase it away. That’s pretty much it for the excitement this time out. Captain Marvel lands… and the bear walks away. My son was happy because bears are cool, and I suppose it would be asking a bit much, even with the surprising stunts this show pulled, to expect any kind of stuntman-bear wrestling.

For a few years in the 1990s, incidentally, this was the only episode of Shazam! to make its way around any of the VHS tape trading circles in which I moved. Others eventually joined it, mainly from the John Davey run, but for a while, this was most people’s only exposure to the show. Sadly, it’s easily among the weakest of the first twelve, without even a neat stunt, camera trick, or cool car to set it apart, and set the tone for all the mocking my friends and I ladled out.

Shazam! 1.11 – Little Boy Lost

Another “memory cheats” moment: I swear that sometime in the late seventies, my mother made me sit down and watch an afterschool special or a TV movie or something called “Little Boy Lost” about a kid who ran away, but I can’t find any trace of it now, although I did find that David Janssen, Joanna Pettet, and Greg Morris made a charity short film for the United Way in 1974 with that title.

As for this episode, which was written and directed by Arthur H. Nadel and which guest stars John Carter (Lt. Biddle on Barnaby Jones), it’s a pretty treacly “kid-and-puppy go missing” segment, which Daniel really enjoyed most because of the puppy. It does, however, have a remarkably surprising visual effect. In a very, very contrived moment, the dad, having found his missing son, and the puppy, pauses on the drive home at some kind of “ghost town” tourist attraction, “for old time’s sake,” and, in the least surprising development possible, ends up trapped down a mine shaft so that the little boy has to then get help.

What nobody saw coming was this: the entire front of one of the fake abandoned buildings falls atop the hole to the mine shaft. I’ll give Nadel and Filmation total credit for that. The “trapped dad” angle would have worked just fine, in its low budget kids’ show way, without that very neat flourish. The full-size building collapses, and Jackson Bostwick has to haul it back into place before he jumps down into the hole to save the day. It’s always nice to have a surprise watching these shows, you know?

Shazam! 1.10 – The Brain

Yep, this is what teenagers looked like in 1974. My late uncle Ron graduated from high school in 1974. He lived with us then and owned three of those shirts. The green and white shirt’s worn by Biff Warren, who played Doomsday in NBC’s The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. a couple of seasons later. I’d like to see that show again, actually. (Checks YouTube. Oh. No, never mind, I wouldn’t.)

Oddly, I was just telling Daniel a couple of days ago how kids, when they become teenagers, start doing really stupid things. This one required us to pause it to explain what in the world is going on. Biff Warren’s character is the leader of that gang, and he makes the new kid that he doesn’t like undergo a dangerous initiation to hang out with them. Then he starts to lose face and needs rescuing.

The weirdest thing about this episode, another of the first batch that’s directed by Hollingsworth Morse, is that the new kid has one of Filmation’s publicity photos of Jackson Bostwick as Captain Marvel on his bedroom wall. What are we to make of this? In this universe, where Captain Marvel only seems to show up for two or three minutes at a time to stop a runaway horse or extinguish an underground coal fire, he nevertheless found time to stop by a studio somewhere and have some photos made. Did he need some head shots to send out for the Avengers’ or the Justice League’s next membership drive?

Also, it was written by Donald F. Glut, who wrote a Land of the Lost episode we looked at last month. It turns out this was Glut’s first professional job, but he’d been making superhero and dinosaur movies on Super-8 film with his friends for more than ten years at this point. He wrote dozens of episodes of Saturday morning and afternoon cartoons, along with comic books – usually horror titles – for all the major publishers in the 1970s and 1980s, and created most of the characters of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toy line. He wrote the paperback novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, and wrapped up his career writing and directing a series of movies in which naked girls fight mummies and dinosaurs. Glut seems to be retired now, but that man can honestly be said to have lived every fan’s dream life.

Shazam! 1.9 – The Doom Buggy

How’d this episode come about? Well, somebody said “Let’s see. Kids like dune buggies, and they should be reminded to stay in school, so let’s do a story where a guy with a dune buggy is thinking about dropping out. That’ll work!”

Trying to convince the guy with the buggy to stay in school is actress Lisa Eilbacher, who had lots of small parts like this in the seventies before getting some choicer roles in the eighties, chief among them the recurring part of Nicky in the NBC drama Midnight Caller. She doesn’t have a lot to do in this other than ride a motorcycle around the desert with Les Tremayne’s stunt double.

I am pleasantly surprised that this show resonates with Daniel. He really likes it, despite my mocking of it here, so never mind what I say. This was made for kids, and this one enjoys it just fine.

Shazam! 1.8 – The Boy Who Said “No”

I always say that you have to grade Shazam! on a curve, because the reason this show is so timid is the same reason that the very first season of Super Friends – the one with Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog – is so much worse than all the rest of that show. And true, Super Friends was a pretty lousy show, ripe for all the decades of mocking that it’s received, but by 1978, you at least had the Legion of Doom actually killing all the heroes and requiring some celestial intervention to bring everybody back to life. The original Super Friends hour didn’t have any villains at all, just “misguided scientists.” Hamstrung by the likes of Peggy Charren and the Action for Children’s Television advocacy group, the Saturday morning superheroes of 1973-75, whether animated or live action, didn’t have anybody to fight.

So you get completely antiseptic situations like the one in this episode, where the criminal succeeds in pushing his way around and even forces a hostage to fly him off in a helicopter without a weapon, without even making a fist. And at the end, he apologizes for all the trouble he caused; he just needed some money and made a bad decision. It’s pretty awful.

And yet… the things that Hollingsworth Morse and Filmation got away with making their star do are just eye-popping from a modern perspective. Following up some of the surprising crane stunts in the last few stories, Jackson Bostwick genuinely hangs from a helicopter several feet off the ground in this one. A Captain Marvel program made today would probably have the Sivanas and King Kull in it, but the producers would be a little less likely to dangle their star fifteen feet in the air without some safety equipment.